The Third Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a lawsuit brought by African American families and students in Pennsylvania alleging that the Lower Merion School District placed the students in special education classrooms as a result of racial bias.

The School District placed the children at issue in remedial classes after identifying them as disabled under the IDEA. Plaintiffs argued that their children were misidentified as learning disabled, and as a result, were deprived of appropriate educational services.

The District Court rejected the plaintiffs’ claims because there was no showing that the students were placed into special education as a result of intentional discrimination rather than in error. The plaintiffs attempted to support their intentional discrimination claim with evidence that African American students were over-identified based on population comparisons. For example, the plaintiffs presented evidence that in one year 14% of the School District’s special education students were African American, while African American students only comprised 8% of the total number of students in the School District. In contrast, 81% of special education students were Caucasian, while Caucasian students comprised approximately 83% of the total number of students in the District. Reviewing such data the Court held that “[t]hough these numbers undoubtedly show that it was more likely that an African American student than a Caucasian student would be placed in a special education course, the numbers are not so disproportionate that they suggest the presence of discrimination in student placement absent additional evidence that could justify drawing this inference.”

Rather, the Court highlighted plaintiffs’ failure to present any evidence that the School District utilized different evaluation procedures for African American students and Caucasian students. The Court explained that “if the same evaluation procedures are used for all students regardless of their race there simply is not discrimination.”

This case highlights the importance of maintaining and implementing procedures for conducting special education evaluations.

Laura Smith